They are Us

In December, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech in which he said:

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

King is hardly the first person to suggest that there is a deep, profound interrelatedness among humanity.  It is a teaching found, in one form or another, in many of the world’s spiritual traditions.  Jesus himself made it clear that our individual humanity is connected to the humanity of others, and he made that point especially by pointing toward our connections with the poorest and most needy among us.   When Jesus emphasized the importance not only of loving God but of loving our neighbors as ourselves, he was making a clear statement about the equality of all human beings.  Each is worthy of the same love.  To be a follower of Jesus, it is clear in the Gospels that we must serve our neighbors, must serve those who are in need of our help.  He was not impressed by those who would declare their love for him without extending that same love to their fellow human beings.  We are all connected in the love of God.

But while King was not the first person to point out this deep connection that binds us all, he did make that point in a uniquely American context and at a crucial time in our nation’s history, as the civil rights movement sought to rid our nation of the idea that African Americans were somehow not worthy of the same rights as white Americans.  King sought to point out that as long as any one group within our society were denied their full humanity, all of us would be diminished.

What Jesus was, in part, preaching against, and what King was also speaking against, was the idea of Otherness, the idea of looking upon other human beings as somehow separate from ourselves.  At various times in American history, various groups have been defined as the Other by many or most Americans:  African Americans, certainly, but also Japanese Americans, Irish Americans, Chinese American, Hispanic Americans – I’m sure you could add others to the list.  At this moment in our history, the most obvious groups of people who are prominently being placed into the Other category are Muslims and illegal immigrants.  The essential problem that arises when one group is defined as Other is that people begin to fear them, they begin to think that they are somehow dangerous or threatening, even defective in some way, the source of many of our problems. Once this way of thinking begins to take root, it becomes easy to regard them as somehow less than fully human, and thus not worthy of compassion or rights or basic human dignity.  What we often don’t notice is that as we are diminishing the humanity of the Other, our own humanity is being diminished in the process.

The current controversy over the planned Islamic community center in New York City, usually referred to as the Ground-Zero mosque, is a case study of the very process I have just described.  I am not interested here in taking a position on whether or not it is a good idea for Cordoba House to be built at the site that is planned.  But what is clear to me is that in the process of opposing the building of that center, many people have cast Muslims in the role of the Other, painting them all with the same brush with which the handful of 9/11 terrorists are painted.  The clear message is that Muslims, as Other, are dangerous, that they are a threat, that they have beliefs and practices that are defective because they are different from, well, Christianity.   There was no greater symbol to me of this effort to cast Muslims as the Other than a photo I saw of a protest somewhere in the country against Cordoba House.  There were several people attending that protest who carried signs which said, “Not your country” or similar sentiments.  The signs were directed toward Muslims – indicating that the sign carriers apparently believed that Muslims were by definition foreigners – another kind of Otherness.  The fact is, of course, that the vast majority of Muslims in the United States are Americans.  People who were born here, just like the sign carriers.

As I have watched the Cordoba House controversy unfold, it has become clear to me that all of us, as a nation, are being diminished.  The values which have been a cherished part of our national identity – values of religious freedom, openness and equal opportunity for all – are made to appear as if they are no longer a part of who we are.  As people embrace the idea of Muslims as the Other, it clearly becomes easy for them to deem them unworthy of the same rights, dignities and opportunities as the rest of the country.  Rather than being a shining example to the world – which we have long prided ourselves as being – we are revealed to be just as fearful, jingoistic and prejudiced as those populating those nations which we have long viewed as not being as great as we are.

In Jesus’ time, leprosy was a disease that was greatly feared.  Those who had the misfortune to contract it were regarded as cursed by God, and they were forced to leave their families and communities and to live as exiles in the wilderness.  Groups of them would sometimes assemble and live together in exile.  Many times in the Gospels, we see Jesus spending time among lepers, touching them, healing them, showing them that they were indeed worthy of God’s love and compassion.  Lepers were surely one of those whom the people of Jesus’ time (including the religious authorities and the faithful) regarded as Other, and thus as forgotten by God and not quite fully human.  Jesus sought to show them that this was not true.

Who do we think that Jesus would be spending time with today, if he were suddenly to appear among us?  I think that answer is rather clear:  he would be spending time with whomever we classify as the Other, in order to try to show us that there is no such thing as the Other, in order to show us that they are us, and until their full dignity as human beings is honored, our own human dignity will be diminished, as well.

Waiting….then Acting

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him. – Psalm 62:5

Recently, I posted a re-creation of a sermon about prayer and our relationship with God, in which I suggested that God was not a cosmic vending machine into which we might place our prayers like quarters with the expectation that our request will be supplied. That elicited one formal comment (along with some informal ones) asking about what prayer was and how it should be done.

I don’t claim to be an expert on prayer by any means.  But through my own experience of praying, and attempting to pray, I find that the form of prayer that is the most simple outwardly is the most difficult inwardly, and yet, it is the essence of what I have come to believe prayer is meant to be.    That form of prayer is described in the verse from Psalm 62 quoted above:  “For God alone my soul is silence waits, for my hope is from him.”    There are a number of times in the Psalms where the reader is counseled to wait for God.  The language is always poetic, but the point seems to me to be clear:  that if we wish to experience God, then we must spend time waiting in an attitude of quiet and silence.  When we are able, in a place of relative outward quiet, to bring quiet into our own minds and hearts, then we can begin to perceive the subtle energies of God moving within us, reaching out to us, seeking to transform in us whatever needs to be transformed so that we might be more like Christ.

For this, I believe, is the heart of the Christian journey:  to make ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God, which we call by the names of love, grace, mercy – just to name a few.  Those energies, which we perceive most effectively when we are able to quiet ourselves and enter the silence of the soul, invite us to cooperate with God in a synergistic relationship that changes us into the form of  Christ.  Not that many of us become completely transformed into a Christ-like humanity; but that is hardly the point.   Even to be partially transformed, even to enter into each day with the intention of seeking to be Christ-like, will move us nearer to our true selves, to participating in and manifesting authentic humanity.  This is hardly a new teaching.  It is very ancient in the Christian tradition, but over the centuries, we have tended to lose track of it – particularly in the West.   But it has reappeared in our own time, through movements like Centering Prayer and the rediscovery of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as well as other forms of Christian meditation.

But while making ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God through the prayer of silent waiting is at the heart of our Christian journey, it hardly constitutes the whole of that journey.  For if the energies of God act to invite us into being more like  Christ, then clearly we are meant to manifest something of the Christ in our own lives.  While the Gospels present us with various portraits of the life of Jesus, the pattern or form of his life is clear throughout all of them.   The life of Christ is balanced between a silent waiting for God in solitude and an active life of radical self-giving service.  Our life is meant to be similarly balanced.  By spending time each day in silent, contemplative prayer,  “waiting for God”, making ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God, we are made more able to manifest Christ in our own lives so that when we rise from our time of prayer, we are motivated and empowered to engage the world in the same way Jesus did, with some measure of selflessness and compassion.

Of course, it is possible to act in the world selflessly and compassionately without a practice of contemplative prayer.  But contemplative prayer adds at least three important dimensions to our lives.  First, it cultivates in us an increasing sense of interior peace, which includes the ability to respond more wisely to the world around us rather than to react more instinctively.  Second, it allows us to act in the world with less anxiety and less ego.  This makes our work more skillful and, when things don’t go as we planned, it helps prevent us from having our ego so attached to the outcome of our efforts.  Thus, we are less likely to be overwhelmed by failure, and to be more easily renewed to attempt the work again.  Finally, contemplative prayer is the tool that allows us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God and to experience our relationship with God more profoundly.  It helps us to feel and to know that we are loved by God, and that ultimately our souls – the very essence of our humanity – cannot be injured by the vicissitudes of life.   Understanding this at a deep level of being transforms our perspective on our own lives and the life of the world.

The Christian tradition never separates the individual practice of prayer from the prayer of the community.  Liturgical prayer, our public worship services, and the celebration of the sacraments – especially the Eucharist, or Communion – nourishes and supports our contemplative practice as well as our carrying forward of that practice into an active life of compassionate service.  Through the rituals of worship, and the sacramental use of water, bread, wine, oil and touch, the energies of God which are present more subtly in our individual prayer lives are made more concrete to us, and are magnified as they mingle with the energy of the community of faith gathered together.  The power of the sacred space created by a worshipping community should never be underestimated.

And so, the answer to the question of how to pray is deceptively simple:  to wait for God in the silence of one’s soul, to quiet the mind and heart in order to be vulnerable to the energies of God.  Thereby, we are slowly made more like Christ, as a rock is slowly softened and reshaped by a constant stream of living water.  I use the term “deceptively simple” because those who attempt this way of prayer usually find it difficult, for two main reasons.  First, to spend time waiting daily in silence is deeply counter-cultural, and so we are assaulted by a sense that we are wasting our time.   It does not help that this way of prayer requires time and regular practice to bear fruit, so accustomed have we become to instant results.  Second, as soon as we attempt to quiet our minds, the volume seems to turn itself up, and we find ourselves barraged by a constant stream of thoughts which carry us away and obscure the energies of God moving within us.  There are various methods for dealing with these thoughts, most of which involve not fighting against them, but acknowledging their presence and then gently letting them go.  Over time, our minds do learn to quiet down.  But it is hard to give the time required for that to happen.

This brings me to a final point about prayer:  it is not a quick path to spiritual fitness.  The same thing is true of our souls that is true of our bodies – we cannot cannot get them in shape overnight.  Physical fitness requires a sustained pattern of diet and exercise over a long period of time.  Spiritual fitness requires the same thing, in terms of a sustained practice of contemplative and liturgical prayer over time.  Yet, the rewards can be personally profound.  And, in terms of our engagement with the world, a sustained practice of prayer can lead us to act in the world with wisdom, helping us to make God’s vision for our world more and more of a reality.

From Intervention to Transformation

Permit me to begin with an old joke with which I began a recent sermon:

There was a man of great faith of lived alone in his house.  One day, a great storm came and the rain poured down and the man’s neighborhood began to flood.  As he stood on his porch surveying the river that was forming in front of his house, some people came by on a boat.  “Get in”, they said, “and we’ll take you to safety.”   “No”, the man answered, “I am a man of great faith, and I know that God will save me.”  So the boat moved on.   The water continued to rise, and the man retreated to the second story of his house.  As he looked out the window at the raging water, another boat came by, and the people invited him in so he could be taken to dry ground.  “No, thank you,” the man answered.  “I am a man of great faith, and I know that God will save me.”    So the boat moved on.  Eventually, the water rose so high that the man had to retreat to the roof of his house as the water swirled around him.   A helicopter came along and hovered over him.  A rescue worker was lowered down on a rope, and asked the man to get into a harness, and they would pull him up to safety.   “No, thank you,” the man answered.  “I am a man of great faith, and I know God will save me.”   So the helicopter moved on.   The man drowned.   Upon arriving in heaven, the man stood before God and said, “Dear God, my whole life I was a man of great faith in you.  Why did you not save me?”  God said to the man, “Well, I did send you two boats and a helicopter.”

One of the wonderful things I like about this little joke is that it illustrates the need for a shift in our spiritual perspective, and the consequences of failing to make that shift:  a forfeiting of the precious gift of life.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

The shift I am referring to is a shift from a spiritual perspective of God that is interventionist to a perspective that views God as an agent — the most important agent — in our personal transformation.

In the joke, the man who refuses all human offers for help sees himself as someone of great faith, and he defines this as someone who believes that God will save him from the flood.  That is fine, as far as it goes.  The problem surfaces (pun–sorry) when it becomes clear that his spiritual perspective on God is one in which being saved from the flood apparently relies on some act of divine intervention that results in his deliverance from danger.  The message of the joke is clear:  because he is locked into this perspective, he ends up forfeiting his life and any further opportunity to exercise his faith in this world for the good of his fellow human beings.  He has forfeited something extremely precious.

The heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, which sadly is often lost in many of today’s versions of Christianity, aims at something quite different.  Rather than encouraging a perspective that expected God to intervene on behalf of God’s faithful servants, the tradition actually greatly discourages that point of view.  The stories of the men and women who abandoned the world over the centuries to dedicate themselves fully to the pursuit of an intimate relationship with God make it very clear that those who undertook such a path in the expectation of experiencing miracles were seen as being in grave spiritual danger, opening themselves to delusion.  The Christian spiritual life was instead to be aimed at personal transformation through the grace of God.  The expectation that God will perform some miraculous intervention is, fundamentally, tied to the ego, and the Christian spiritual tradition (along with every other spiritual tradition that I know of) sees the ego as the chief human problem.  To expect miraculous intervention is to misunderstand what God and the spiritual life are about, and is to inflate one’s own importance with respect to the rest of humanity and creation.  Another aspect of the ego that shows up in this kind of thinking is that we often ask for God to “save” us from that which is inextricably a part of human life.  All of us will encounter suffering and misfortune at some point and to some degree; all of us will encounter sickness at some point and to some degree; and all of us, no matter what, will eventually die.  These are all part of what it is to be human.

The Christian spiritual tradition views our life’s journey as one that is to be transformative, through a synergy or cooperation between us and God’s grace.  One result of that transformation is to recognize the presence of God beyond the miraculous.  Or, put another way, is to see that all of life is miraculous and filled with God’s presence.   Even the sufferings and misfortunes, the illnesses and, yes, even death itself are filled with the presence of God.  If the man in the joke had been further along in that process of transformation, he would have jumped into one of those boats or finally taken the helicopter, because he would have recognized that the fact that other human beings came along who could take him to safety was itself a miracle, and a manifestation of God’s presence in the people who offered their help.

Now there are those who will point to seemingly miraculous events in the Bible both to emphasize the possibility of miraculous intervention and perhaps to argue that praying for or even expecting such intervention is not unreasonable.  To me, it is clear that I cannot fully account for the more miraculous elements of the biblical stories.  I was not there, that which they describe is completely outside my experience, and thus I am in no position to judge them.  Perhaps they happened as they are told, though most likely the stories were embellished to some degree.  They were certainly told to communicate deep truths, which may or may not depend on the miraculous elements.  It is certainly true that the stories are told from particular perspectives which we cannot fully enter into.   As someone once said (if I may paraphrase) there is more to this universe, and certainly to God, than is dreamt of in any of our philosophies (or theologies).

What is more interesting to me, rather than the individual miraculous stories of the Bible, is the overall movement evident within the larger themes of the Scriptures.  To me, that movement is one of transformation, whether of the people of Israel as they move from slavery to freedom to nomadism to settled existence or the more personal and individual transformation to which Jesus points as he charges his followers to find a new and renewed life through love of God and neighbor.  All of the major figures of the Hebrew Scriptures undergo transformations that are at least as impressive as the more spectacular miracle stories:  Abraham and Sarah set out into unknown territory to sow the seeds of a new people; Jacob’s journey is one from selfish, jealous younger brother to a wise leader; Moses goes from being a stuttering exile hiding out to leading his people to freedom, just to name a few.  And the overriding interest of the prophets and the wisdom writers of the Hebrew Scriptures is the transformation of people, individually and collectively, from unrighteousness to righteousness and from faithlessness to faithfulness.  The New Testament is filled with stories of transformation, as broken people are led to greater wholeness and as the disciples move from clueless cowardice to courageous proclamation of the love of God manifested in Jesus.

Over and over again, as people experience healing and wholeness in the presence of Jesus, he says to them that it is their faith that has made them well.  Much of the time, this is interpreted as meaning that these people believed the right thing or trusted enough.  Perhaps it did.  But it may also mean that Jesus engendered in them, through the grace of God that moved through him, a change in perspective, and that shift resulted in a profound transformation — we might even say a miraculous transformation.  It is amazing — miraculous — what can happen to people when they begin to see themselves not as fundamentally broken, but as fundamentally whole; not as sinners worthy of punishment, but as saints already loved by God.

So let’s not find ourselves standing around waiting for a lightning zap from God to help us out.  Instead, let’s look for the lightning within, God’s spirit already dwelling in us, seeking to change our hearts and our perspectives.  As Jesus taught, let those who have ears to hear hear, and those who have eyes to see see.